Sunday, November 21, 2021

Citizens At Town Hall Meeting Express Interest In A Second Vote On Rejected Oconee County Transportation Sales Tax Referendum

***LaVista Road Plans Discussed***

Oconee County Commission Chair John Daniell didn’t make any mention in his opening comments at the Town Hall Meeting on Tuesday of voter rejection on Nov. 2 of the proposed Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.

He bragged in those first comments about recognition the Water Resources Department and the Parks and Recreation Department have received and discussed the contract the county has signed with Charter Communication to expand broadband in the county.

Daniell also updated the audience on a number of road projects, including at U.S. 441 and LaVista Road, at three intersections on Hog Mountain Road west of Butler’s Crossing, and along Experiment Station from Butler’s Crossing to the U.S. 441 bypass.

Fifteen minutes into the meeting, Jeff Hood brought up the failure of the transportation tax referendum and told the Board he supported the tax.

Board members said they accepted the verdict of the vote and were ready to move on.

Hood came back to the microphone later in the meeting, however, after discussion of the referendum had continued, and asked the Board yo consider putting the referendum on the ballot again in November of 2022.

“I'm not sure there's any appetite up here” to do that, Daniell said.

LaVista Road

The need to improve the intersection of U.S. 441 and LaVista Road has been at the center of several rezones, including that allowing for the construction of Presbyterian Village Athens, which has its main entrance across from LaVista Road.

GDOT Explanation of RCUT

Daniell said that the plans for the intersection are “currently in the programming phase” with the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT).

No final date for construction, has been set, but “everybody agrees with the plans that have been submitted and they're just looking at getting final approval within GDOT and then get the financing worked out.”

Eleven citizens were in the Banquet Room of the Civic Center, 2661 Hog Mountain Road, west of Butler’s Crossing, for the Town Hall meeting, and another seven were connected virtually.

Details Of Design

Daniell didn’t elaborate on the plans for the LaVista Road intersection at the Town Hall Meeting, but he told me in an email exchange after the meeting that GDOT plans what is called an RCUT design.

RCUT stands for Reduced Conflict U-Turn. GDOT says nationally this design has reduced by 70 percent fatal injury crashes and by 42 percent injury crashes.

Traffic exiting Presbyterian Village’s main entrance and exiting LaVista Road will only be allowed to turn right.

Traffic traveling on U.S. 441 toward Athens will be allowed to turn left into Presbyterian Homes, and traffic traveling on U.S. 441 toward Watkinsville will be able to turn left onto LaVista Road via turn lanes protected by a raised median pad.

Traffic entering U.S. 441 from Presbyterian Homes and traveling west toward Watkinsville will be able to make a U-Turn by a special lane, and then travel east toward Athens.

Traffic entering U.S. 441 from LaVista Road and traveling east on U.S. 441 will be able to make a U-Turn at Wild Azalea Lane to travel west toward Watkinsville.

Other Road Projects

Daniell also told those at the Town Hall meeting that roundabouts on Hog Mountain Road at Snows Mill Road and on Hog Mountain Road at Ray’s Church Road are in “final review” by GDOT.

“They're kind of moving to the next phase to figure out what kind of right-of-way we need there,” he said.

GDOT also is finalizing plans for a traffic signal on Hog Mountain Road at Union Church Road, Daniell said.

“Hopefully we can get that started in the first quarter of next year,” Daniell said.

Clearing of trees and grubbing has begun on the widening of Experiment Station Road from Butler’s Crossing to the U.S. 441 Bypass, Daniell said.

Work will continue for “approximately 24 months, hopefully quicker,” Daniell said, “but just be prepared.”

“We also have a grant we received from Department of Transportation to do lane widening on Simonton Bridge Road,” Daniell said. This will be similar to what was done earlier this year on Hog Mountain Road, he explained.

Parts of Rocky Branch Road also will be widened, Daniell said.

Awards Touted

Daniell started the meeting by praising the Oconee County Water Resources Department for earning the 2021 Georgia Association of Water Professionals (GAWP) Gold Distribution System Excellence Award for its water system.

Plans For U.S. 441 At LaVista Road
(Click To Enlarge)

Earlier this year, the Water Resources Department had won the Georgia Association of Water Professionals Gold Collection System Distribution Award for recognition of excellence of Oconee County’s sewer system.

“So water coming and going,” Daniell said. “They're doing a great job down there getting it done.”

Daniell also said that the Georgia Recreation and Parks Association (GRPA) selected the Oconee County Parks and Recreation Department as the 2021 State Agency of the Year in the population category of 20,001 to 50,000 residents.

“Jamie Antwine, one of our volunteer coaches, received the District 7 Volunteer of the Year Award,” Daniell added.

For nearly 10 years and 25 seasons, Antwine has volunteered to coach 31 teams, according to a news release by the county on the GRPA selection of Antwine.

Update On Charter Contract

“The other very exciting thing that we want to talk about is broadband,” Daniell said, leading into a review of the agreement with Charter Communication approved by the Board of Commissioners at its Nov. 2 meeting. 

The county will use $1.7 million in federal relief funds it has in hand to pay Charter Communications to build out broadband in underserved areas, mostly in the central and southern parts of the county.

Charter will reach 1,377 addresses through this grant from the county and an additional 754 through a grant from the Federal Communications Commission.

“So approximately 2,200 addresses that are considered unserved in our county will receive service hopefully within the next two years,” Daniell said.

Announcement of Portal

Daniell said the list of unserved addresses come from the state Department Community Affairs, which gets its information from the broadband providers.

“So there's no doubt in my mind there are more than 2,200 unserved locations in Oconee County,” he added. “So expect that number to grow.”

Daniell said the county has launched a portal on its web site where citizens can submit an address to have it considered by Charter for service.

“Put your name and address if you want to double down and make sure your address is checked for service,” Daniell said.

“I know, like where I live, technically the map shows that I'm served, but I got the test to prove that I'm not,” he said. “So my name is going to be on that list.”

Daniell lives on Elder Road in the west of the county.

Speakers

Fourteen different individuals spoke once Daniell opened up the meeting for questions. Three of those were speaking remotely.

Many of those who spoke did so more than once. Of those present who spoke, not all went to the microphone. Some didn’t identify themselves. Speakers were asked to use the microphone and to give their names and address.

Edwin Snell, who did not go to the microphone, asked the first question about broadband service, but it was not possible for those not in the hall to hear what he said.

Pamela Hall, speaking remotely, thanked Daniell for the work on the LaVista Road intersection with U.S. 441.

Hood’s First Question

Hood was the third speaker, and he began by noting that four of the county’s football teams were in the Georgia High School Association state football playoffs” on Friday evening. Those were Athens Academy, North Oconee, Oconee County, and Prince Avenue.

“I hope everyone in the community will get out and support these kids,” Hood said.

(North Oconee and Prince Avenue advanced.)

Hood also announced the Nov. 29 meeting of the Oconee County Republican Party, where Gov. Brian Kemp and Representatives Houston Gaines and Marcus Wiedower will be the speakers.

“It's free,” Hood said. “All you have to do is go to the Oconee GOP Facebook page and register and come on out,” he said.

“So my question has to do with the T-SPLOST that did not pass,” Hood said. “I personally voted for it because I like what it was for--transportation--and I like smooth roads, great intersections.

“But personally I would rather have someone else come from out of the county, spend money, and they helped pay for it. Unfortunately, it didn't pass.”

“So just kind of any one of you five gentlemen that want to speak on it not passing and kind of, you know, where do we go from here?” Hood asked.

Daniell Responds

“I was definitely disappointed in the vote, for sure,” Daniell said.

Plans For RCUT On U.S. 441 West Of LaVista
(Click To Enlarge)

“I mean, we just have to keep doing what we've been doing,” Daniell continued. “Obviously, the majority of the people that came out and voted felt like whatever we were doing with the roads was sufficient enough.

“So we'll keep plugging away like we've been doing and try to maintain good roadways best we can,” he said.

Only 10.7 percent of the county’s voters cast a ballot on the tax referendum on Nov. 2, with 52.8 percent voting against the new 1 percent sales tax.

Harden And Horton Comment

“I was disappointed,” Commissioner Amrey Harden said. “But the majority of those that voted spoke, so we have to adhere to that.”

“It is difficult times for a lot of people with inflation--price of gas going up--so I can understand their hesitance to add another one cents sales tax,” Harden said.

“The voters said they wanted the commissioners to live within the means,” Harden said. “I heard that loud and clear.”

Commissioner Chuck Horton said “maybe we just didn't do a good job of educating” people about the tax. The county had promised a 1 mill reduction in property taxes if voters approved T-SPLOST.

“You know, with Costco coming in and our other stores doing what they're doing, I think we we're going to leave a bunch of money at the counter that could go to help in these roads,” Horton said.

“And they would be paid for by people from probably 12 counties,” he added.

Following Comments

Hood asked when the Commission could put T-SPLOST on the ballot again.

Daniell said it could go back on the ballot in a year.

“I’m not sure there’s any appetite up here to do it that quickly,” he added. “I don’t think there is any appetite to rush back into that from this group anyway.”

The conversation stayed on roads and on T-SPLOST.

More Education Needed

“I just want to make a comment about the T-SPLOST,” Hall said. “I agree with Chuck (Horton). I think you all could have done a better job of educating the public.”

“The average citizen, I don’t think, really understands what one mill reduction means,” she added.

“You say you don't have an appetite to do it in a year,” Hall said. “But if you do have an appetite in a year or two years, I hope that you would take the lesson from this.

“There does need to be more education to the community in multiple ways of getting that information out to everyone,” she added.

“I would like to encourage the Commission to consider putting it on the November 2022 ballot,” Hood said, following Hall’s comments.

Daniell On Information

“That is our biggest challenge,” Daniell said, “getting people to look at the information that's out there. We broadcast on multiple channels throughout the T-SPLOST process,” he added, including on Facebook.

“Our last Town Hall was devoted specifically to T-SPLOST where we talked about dropping the millage rate one mill starting in FY 23–24, 25, and 26 minimum.”

“It’s hard to combat some–I mean there’s other Facebook groups out there just throwing stuff that was just not true and not accurate,” Daniell said.

“We don't have the ability to be able to counteract everything that's out there,” he added.

The property tax set by the Board of Commissioners is 6.586 mills in the unincorporated parts of the county. The school tax set by the Board of Education is 16.5 mills, for a total of 23.086.

The owner of $350,000 home pays $3,199 with the current rate and would pay $138 less with a 1 mill reduction, according to the computational tool on the county’s web site.

Oconee County 411 (GA)

Julie Mauck, who is one of the administrators of the Facebook page Oconee County 411 (GA), came to the microphone near the end of the hour and 15 minute long session.

Horton, Thomas, Daniell, Harden, Saxon (L-R)

“Somebody told me that there was some misinformation on something on the 4-1-1 group, I guess about the T-SPLOST, and I know I came out strong opposing it, and I’m just wondering what the information was that was incorrect?” she asked.

Commissioner Mark Saxon said no one on the Board had referenced her in the discussion.

“I just wanted to let you know why I opposed it,” she said.

“I mean I kind of did the math on what the sales and use tax savings would be for my family versus what the cost of the one millage point reduction would be,” Mauck said, “and it was pretty much a wash for us.”

“I think y'all were talking about possibly putting it on the ballot again and I'm just hoping that you would just kind of sweeten the pot for Oconee citizens a little more if you do that,” Mauck added.

(Mauck subsequently said she did not compute the impact of a reduction in the tax rate, but rather she compared the increase in her property taxes based on increased assessment versus the amount of additional taxes that T-SPLOST would produce.)

Commissioners Respond

“I do know there was some false stuff on Facebook that I was given access to,” Daniell said. “Not with your group. I have not seen anything related to your group.”

Saxon told Mauck that the money would not have been used for new roads but only for “the improvement of the roads we currently have.”

“I just don’t see a lot of need for that myself, personally,” Mauck responded, “but that’s just based on where I drive.

“But you know, if it's talking about development, most of the people here don't want development--new rooms,” she said. “It just kind of brings a lot of people in that people aren't looking for.”

Thomas Responds

“You know, I drive around all over the county,” Commissioner Mark Thomas told Mauck, “and I'm in that business. I build roads. I do that kind of thing.

“We're about 20 years behind on our maintenance--not building new roads but maintenance,” he added.

“And if we continue this trend of not maintaining up to the current standard that we need to, then you're going to see more potholes. You're going to see more failures. You're going to see more sides and shoulders being intruded with grass and things like that.

“And so eventually it's going to get to a point it's going to cost a lot more money and you're going to have to be doing full reclamation and those types of things,” Thomas said.

“I think the timing was really poor and I think you could have sweetened it up a little bit more for the citizens,” Mauck responded.

Video

I did not attend the meeting in-person, but I did join it virtually on Zoom.

The video embedded below is on the Oconee County YouTube channel and is recorded from Zoom, with the single camera used for the event.

The camera did not show the speakers.

Daniell called the meeting to order at 3:35 in the video.

Hood began his initial comments at 17:08 in the video.

3 comments:

Micaela Hobbs said...

I would like to commend all the members of the County Commission. This county is growing rapidly and they are having to deal not only with multiple issues in the present but also having to be proactive and plan for the future. We are lucky to have Commissioners like Mark Thomas with deep roots and real experience in matters that affect the entire county and not just the newer development areas.

Xardox said...

As a renter whose monthly payment is fixed, a rise in sales tax
represents only higher expenses. I do not know the percentage of Oconee County residents who own versus rent. Renters will not benefit from any reduction in millage rates. Besides, unelected tax assessors determine home values anyway.
Higher sales taxes are an increased burden on lower-income or fixed-income residents.
I understand the argument about out-of-county purchasers contributing to highway maintenance. But then, they don't live here.
Bill Mayberry

B Haumschild said...

Xardox,

If out-of-county purchasers are already driving on our roads to come by things, than the only way to recapture the wear and tear they cause is through a sales tax, right?
With Costco coming, there will absolutely be out-of-county purchasers coming and probably a lot, and we should do our best to recapture as much of that as we can instead of footing the bill just ourselves. As a renter, a tax increase places upwards pressure on your rental rate. A tax decrease removes that source of upward pressure. Even without Costco coming, it's better for everybody including the renter to have higher taxes associated with sales tax rather than property tax. It doesn't increase your rent, and the percentage of the burden paid by people outside the county is higher, leaving a lower percentage for those locals. As Commissioner Thomas said, there is a lot of deferred maintenance on our infrastructure. Having outsiders help defray that cost is only beneficial for county residents. And Costco coming in is going to bring more wear and tear that we could have easily recouped with the TSPLOST, that now will just be a higher percentage burden on us.

Please reconsider next time there is a vote.

B. Haumschild